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Each One Teach One

New York
Weill Recital Hall
03/29/2004 -  
Franz Schubert: Sonata D959
Mana Tokuno and Leon Fleisher (piano)

For a very long time I subscribed to the thesis that one must be at least fifty years old to attempt to play the late sonatas of Franz Schubert. In recent memory, however, two examples of youth plumbing the depths of these complex emotions come to mind: the teenaged Delphine Bardin and the just turned thirty Evgeny Kissin. Surely life experience is the key to these masterpieces (although the composer himself was just turning thirty when he wrote them), but much of the communicative power necessary to pull them off may in fact be learned under the right conditions. Last evening at Weill Recital Hall, those conditions were ideal.

Leon Fleisher is a fine pianist whose brain may have always been several steps ahead of his fingers. After suffering crippling damage of the right hand, he carved out a distinguished second career as a teacher and arts administrator, most notably as the somewhat controversial artistic director at Tanglewood. For several hours in the intimate setting of Weill, he imparted his wisdom and hard earned tricks of the trade to aspirants already at a high level of performance technique; now it was time to take these children who can play the notes and turn them into musicians.

I attended the session with twenty-something pianist Mana Tokuno, concentrating on the third and fourth movements of the A Major. After a solid reading of the third movement, more to set the mood and entertain the assembled throng of mostly young Asian piano students armed with scores and pencils, Ms. Tokuno, wired for sound as was her mentor of the day, discussed the piece with Fleisher. In this section, he concentrated on rhythm and its elusive elastic quality. The student had played forcefully but metronomically. The master began to show her a way to start her phrases just a tad after the downbeat, not syncopation exactly but more of a quick intake of pianistic breath before a delicate run. In just twenty minutes, her performance was much more meaningful, the slightly off-center world of the ugly duckling in the corner, watching the laendler instead of actually dancing in it, emerging in her rapidly expanding poetic armamentarium.

In the fourth movement, Fleisher quickly pounced on his charge’s emphasis on downstrokes rather than upticks. “Only potatoes grow down” was his curmudgeonly remark. The lovely melody, known to American audiences as the theme from the sitcom “Wings”, is exceptionally challenging, a prime example of the Herculean task of playing simply. The teacher suggested that Ms. Tokuno change her fingers from hammers to flippers and to let herself be swept away by the gentle phrases, releasing energy in wisps of beauty rather than campanilian regularity. This observer was reminded of the time that the sainted George Szell walked up to one of his Cleveland string players during a rehearsal, grabbed him by the neck and shouted, just inches from his face, “Vy can’t you play more relaxed!” In the event, the student here made some progress, although not as much as in the previous movement. Fleisher left this section by telling her that she really needed to work on letting go.

What was perhaps most poignant in the entire exercise was the part where he worked with her on one of the most difficult areas of pianistic dexterity, the ability to play two different dynamic levels with the same hand at the same time. Like Moses leading his people to the promised land but not venturing in himself (this image may have occurred to me because of Mr. Fleisher’s Biblical profile), the mentor could demonstrate only with his left hand and so had to talk his pupil through this most difficult right-handed legerdemain wherein she soon could play pianissimo with her thumb and index finger and mezzo piano with the remaining three digits. Fascinating stuff.

In my darker moments I think that our wonderful art form, the true cornerstone of Western civilization, is in imminent danger of inexorable, Darwinian extinction. But upon hearing this level of Zen-like mentorship, I emerged into the street more hopeful that what really counts goes on no matter what. Water seeking its own level, cream rising to the top, some liquid imagery comes closest to what I am feeling now. Even after devastating blows of fate, Leon Fleisher found ways to fulfill his ultimate mission as a communicator. As long as the indomitable remains as the foundation of our musical brotherhood, we will be all right.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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